Palliative care has been called the best kept secret in medicine because it is both extremely valuable to almost all people with serious illness and very underused. It is also frequently misunderstood, even by healthcare professionals, which leads to it being employed very late in people’s illness, if at all, and often only when all other medical options have been exhausted. This is despite a growing body of research and experience showing that palliative care has its greatest benefits when employed early. In fact the evidence supporting palliative care overwhelmingly shows that it improves quality of life, and in some circumstances even length of life, with minimal side effects.

If palliative care was a drug it would be amongst the most prescribed in medicine. It would even do better if it was a surgical procedure. Because palliative care falls outside of the dominant biomedical model (the job of medicine is to cure diseases using biologically-based treatments) it has had a hard time getting traction with many healthcare providers and systems. Fortunately, as the culture of medicine evolves, palliative care is increasingly seen as core to the medicine’s highest goals and is making significant advances.

In a nutshell, palliative care is an approach to improving the quality of life of people living with serious illness and their families. This approach is founded on the idea that suffering from illness is not a matter of abnormal physiology and cell biology but is rather occurs at the level of the individual person who is challenged to maintain their physical, emotional, mental, social and spiritual wellbeing in the face of a serious illness. This approach seeks to address these issues through a variety of strategies, including medical treatments when possible, counseling, practical support, honest conversation, and above all, validating and sharing in the reality of suffering. The palliative care approach can be provided by specialists, but can also come from any member of the healthcare team. Importantly, this approach can also come from the patient and family themselves.

In this series of blogs, we will take an insider’s look into the core concepts of palliative care and see how they can be applied to self-care (Part I), improving the care you get from healthcare providers (Part II), and providing an extra layer of support for some of the most challenging aspects of life with a serious illness (Part III).

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